Budget travel can be an exciting, challenging experience and there are lots of ways to save money on the basics: lodging, eating and transportation. Here’s my take on saving money on your London vacation.
Budget Accommodations in London
You’ll need to sleep, and a park bench just won’t do—but a couch could be perfect if you’re an ultra-independent traveler. Couch Surfing has become popular amongst the extreme backpacker crowd, and it does offer a free and authentic travel experience, if you’re up for it. Participants create an account and profile, and then seek out other members in the locations they wish to visit. I must confess that I’ve never tried this myself, but my friends have with great success (and have made lasting friendships with their hosts).
If you’re on a budget, but are not quite ready to crash on a stranger’s couch, hostels can be a wonderful option. Hostels offer beds in shared dorms, communal bathrooms, and often provide friendly common areas. They are conducive to meeting fellow travelers (I met my husband in one!), but sometimes are not ideal for getting a good night’s sleep. Hostels offer a variety of different atmospheres and clientele: some are rambunctious and full of revelers, some feel a bit sterile and host a decidedly older crowd, and most fit somewhere between these extremes. Do your research, as I’ve found the reviews on hostel booking websites to be pretty accurate.
If you have a bit more money to play with and covet a home-away-from-home, a self-catering apartment could be your best choice. This option becomes very budget-friendly if you are traveling in a group, as they usually have room for two or more. Travelers looking for rest and relaxation, and not necessarily looking for social interaction with other backpackers, are best served by this option. Many websites specialize in this category, but don’t forget to also try a basic internet search, because there are many individuals that aren’t affiliated with formal websites. Some lovely apartments are even listed on Craigslist, VRBO and Gumtree, so do invest some time in browsing.
Saving Money on Meals in London
You’ll also need to eat, but you don’t have to spend much more on food than you would at home. Shop as the Londoners do, at supermarkets (Sainsbury’s is my favorite), where you’ll find cheap, wholesome foods for a fraction of the cost in restaurants. Hostels and holiday apartments have guest kitchens, and using these facilities even once per day can bring down your traveling costs immensely. Think ahead—are you going out for dinner? Plan on stocking up on fruit and cereal for breakfast, and perhaps heating up soups for lunch. Suddenly, you can afford a fun meal out without the worry or guilt. Budget travel shouldn’t be about completely limiting yourself—it can be a happy, and rewarding, compromise.
If you’re exploring for the day and cannot make it back to your kitchen for lunch, ‘take away’ is the name of the game. Sandwiches are widely available (from Boots, to Marks and Spencer, to Pret A Manger), and a fish-and-chip shop may offer a cheap and cheerful (if not exactly healthy) lunch on the go. I’ve also found that carrying snacks such as nuts and dried fruit is helpful, especially during long days of sightseeing. When dinner finally rolls around, you’ll be able to savor the food and experience without stressing about the cost. (Of course meals can be switched around, too: if you’re craving a big pub lunch, pick up a simple pasta-and-sauce dinner on your way back to your accommodations.)
Getting around London on a Budget
Finally, you’ll need to budget some money towards transportation. But if you plan ahead, it does not need to break the bank. The largest cost you’ll probably face is the journey to and from the airport. But even here, there are a number of good alternatives. Instead of taking the Heathrow or Gatwick Express trains, which are primarily for tourists, consider taking regular public transport. Yes, the tube and commuter trains are a slower ride, but you’ll more than make up for it in money saved. For instance, the Heathrow Express costs £32 for a return journey into Central London, while the Underground only costs £5 each way (before the Oyster card discount—see below). If you take the tube both ways, that’s a massive savings of £22, which is enough for another ‘splurge’ or for a daily pint during your trip. Another wallet-friendly alternative is to make the trip by bus. See National Express for more details.
For getting around the city, you’ll need to rely on more than just your own two feet (but do walk when possible—it’s always free, and it’s the best way to sight see). The Underground is a travel experience unto itself, and once you master that famous map, it is a fantastic way to get from point-to-point. Buses are also a good value, and allow you to see London at street level. Make your transportation money go further by purchasing either a Travelcard (which allows unlimited travel over a day or week), or an Oyster card (which operates in a discounted pay-as-you-go manner). Both are sold by Transport for London, and they can even mail you the cards before you depart for your holiday. One more hint about the tube: the map isn’t to scale, so walking in Central London can actually be the easier option (the most well-known example of this is the paltry 260 meter distance between the Covent Garden and Leicester Square stations).
An independent tour of London might cost more than it used to, but it is still attainable. By budgeting your funds and making the most of the money you do have, you’ll be able to experience the city without feeling like you’re missing something. And, London is a city worth visiting, even on a budget. We think Viator offers a great variety of tours and London play tickets at reasonable pricing
Written by Amy Vasereno for EuropeUpClose.com